Smoke around the city


Sajjad Hossain


Lise Ostby, a Norwegian student now visiting Dhaka doesn't smoke. However she thinks it doesn't matter at all. "The smoke around the city of Dhaka is worse than the effect of nicotine," she says. "How can you remain so indifferent to this grave problem?" she asked. True is her accusation. The pale-blue-smoke that always hangs over the city of Dhaka is more fatal than any biological weapon. Still, surprisingly, the authorities are completely deaf to the menace that is slowly killing us. Uncontrolled emissions from unfit vehicles, specially from auto-rickshaws having 1950's-vintage-two-stroke- engines that use a deadly cocktail of engine oil and petrol, are mainly responsible for this pollution. These days, the air of Dhaka has become so thick that it is difficult for people to breathe. Having no other option people often resort to queer measures like putting on masks not realizing that suspended particles of smoke enter their body anyway.

Although the government introduced lead-free petroleum in the country in 2000, smoke continues to threaten people with the presence of different carcinogen additives. Studies have shown that Dhaka city's air contains 463 nanograms of lead and is eight times higher in children's blood stream than is permissible. The annual emission of various chemical particles is almost 50 tons, according to scientists.

The situation has improved slightly in the face of continuous campaign against leaded fuel by environmentalists and the media. The World Bank and some other international organizations have funded several government programs to cleanse the air of Dhaka city. However, plans to phase out the city's burgeoning fleet of auto-rickshaws including forcing them to use proper lubricants and convert their engines into CNG or LPG run vehicles remains confined in paper only. Despite a ban on production, blending, import and marketing of lubrication oil without proper additives continues, particularly by auto-rickshaws. It is revealed, in a recent survey, that some 65,000 auto-rickshaw drivers in the city mix crude lubrication oil with petrol for use in their vehicles. Auto-rickshaw drivers are seen buying lubrication oil in unsealed containers from petrol pumps though its sale in such manner is strictly prohibited. Besides, some petrol stations sell recycled engine oil which is making the situation worse. The law prohibits production, import and marketing of lubrication oil below APISC/CC grade engine oil for motor vehicles and APITC or JASO FB for two-stroke engine of auto-rickshaws. Like many other such dormant laws, this too is hardly obeyed by the petrol pump owners. 

Another urban nuisance and potential threat to health is the high decibel of noise in the streets. Unfortunately, even the police are not mentally prepared to acknowledge this as a hazard, let alone take any action against it. The hydraulic horns used by buses and trucks are causing serious damage to people's health. Though there are laws against use of such horns but those laws have failed to contain this menace due to lack of commitment on the part of enforcement agencies. In western countries honking without any reason is considered to be an offence. But here, in our country, the situation is, miserably, quite the opposite. Drivers do not hesitate to use their horns callously in front of hospitals, schools or in residential areas. 

Unplanned industrialization in the city area has also resulted in massive air and sound pollution. Most of these industries do not have any proper system to dump their waste and they hardly bother for any protective measures. The tanneries in the Hazaribagh area are serious threats to the environment of the city. They usually dump their chemical wastes in the surrounding canals and river of the city which are a major source of our drinking water. They discharge the waste directly into the river without treating it, in stark violation of the law. And this excessive discharge of sewage, industrial waste, especially chromium-laden effluents from several hundred tanneries have turned the Buriganga into a poisonous pool of water. These industries have simply ignored notices that the government has served them regarding mandatory installation of effluent treatment plant within their compounds. There are other problems as well. Brick-fields near the city often use rubber tires, used engine oil and fire wood in total disregard of the law and the environment. Builders have joined the queue, filling wetlands and flood plains around the city which has resulted in water stagnation during monsoon.

Though the government made some stringent laws in the late 70s and prepared a National Environment Management Plan in the mid-90s with a policy for safe environment followed by some steps in the late-90s, these are yet to be enforced properly. Nor did its plan to prosecute the polluters materialize. Although an Act envisaging setting up of environment courts was passed by the Parliament last year, little headway has been made in implementing the law. 

It is sad that though we have more than fifty political parties in our country, environmental issues hardly get priority in their political agenda. This is because our people are not conscious about environmental degeneration. And that is also why they fail to apply pressure on political leaders on this issue. Though rural inhabitants are the worst victims of any kind of environmental hazard, they fail to realize it due to lack of knowledge. Urban inhabitants, on the other hand, in spite of their knowledge of the environmental menace, have failed miserably to address this crisis.

All of the above are happening despite the existence of solid conservation laws in our books and the existence of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF). The authorities as well as the citizens of the country should wake up to environmental dangers before it is too late. There will come a point when we will not be able to alleviate the situation- then it will not only be life-threatening but also a hindrance to investment and creativity. Our abysmal indifference towards environmental issues, both on the part of political leaders and common people, may one day turn our land into a place where it will be impossible for our future generations to survive. It is not too late to act. Something should be done about it right here, right now.

Source: Holiday , 27 July, 2001